Major Approaches to Psychology: Types and Explanation

Psychology is the scientific study of human and animal behavior and mental processes. Psychology is a science whose goals, like those of every other branch of science, are to explain, describe, predict, and control.

Early Approaches to Psychology

As the field of psychology progressed, various schools of thought arose to compete and offer new approaches to the science of behavior.

1. Structuralism

In 1879, in Leipzig, Germany, Wilhelm Wundt (1832–1920) started his psychology laboratory. Because of his efforts to pursue the study of human behavior in a systematic and scientific manner, Wundt is generally acknowledged as establishing modern psychology as a separate, formal field of study. 

Wundt's interest was in the study of the human mind. He emphasized the study of the basic elements, primarily sensations and perceptions, that make up conscious mental experiences. His ideas were carried to the United States by Edward B. Titchener (1867–1927) Titchener called Wundt's ideas structuralism because they dealt with the structure of mental life. 

Essentially, the structuralists hoped to analyze experience into basic "elements" or "building blocks." Structuralists argue that we can understand how perceptions are formed by breaking them down into smaller and smaller elements. Then we can analyze how these basic elements are recombined to form a perception. They believed that perception is simply the sum of its parts. 

The structuralists utilized introspection as a method of analyzing mental life. Introspection is a method of exploring conscious mental processes by asking subjects to look inward and report their sensations and perceptions. The structuralists' reliance on introspection got them into trouble. 

Despite their training, introspectors often produced conflicting reports. Therefore, structuralism was criticized for being narrow and subjective. These criticisms resulted in another new approach, called functionalism.

2. Functionalism

William James (1842–1910) taught the first class in psychology at Harvard University in 1875. James is often called the "father of psychology" in the United States. He labored tirelessly for 12 years to write the first textbook of psychology. The Principles of Psychology (1890). James speculated that thinking, feeling, learning, and remembering—all activities of the mind—serve one major function: to help us survive as species. 

Rather than focusing on the structure of the mind as Wundt and Titchener did, James focused on the functions or actions of the conscious mind and the goals or purposes of behaviors. Functionalists study how animals adapt to their environments. Although James was not particularly interested in experimentation, his writings and theories are still influential today.

The Gestalt school of thought was promulgated by a group of German psychologists, including Max Wertheimer (1880–1943), Wolfgang Köhler (1887–1967), and Kurt Koffka (1886–1941), who disagreed with the principles of structuralism and behaviorism. The German word Gestalt means "form, pattern, or whole." Gestalt Psychologists studied thinking, learning, and perception in whole units, not by dividing experiences into parts. Their slogan was, "The whole is greater than the sum of its parts."

Contemporary Approaches to the Study of Psychology

Many concepts taken from early approaches to psychology are reflected in contemporary approaches to the study of psychology. The most important approaches to the study of psychology today are the psychoanalytic, behavioral, humanistic, cognitive, biological, and sociocultural approaches.

1. Psychoanalysis

Psychoanalysis was developed by Sigmund Freud (1856–1939). While the early psychologists were interested in understanding the conscious mind, Sigmund Freud was more interested in the unconscious mind. He believed that our conscious experiences are only the tip of the iceberg and that beneath the surface are primitive biological urges that are in conflict with the requirements of society and morality. 

According to Freud, these unconscious motivations and conflicts are responsible for most human behavior. He thought that they were responsible for many medically unexplainable physical symptoms that troubled his patients. Freud used a new method known as free association to study unconscious processes of the mind. Freud's view of unconscious motivation remains a powerful and controversial influence to date. 

Modern psychologists may support, alter, or attempt to disprove it, but most have a strong opinion about it.

2. Behaviourism

Behaviorism is the attempt to understand behavior in terms of relationships between observable stimuli and observable responses. Behaviorists are psychologists who study only those behaviors that they can observe and measure. Behaviorists are not concerned with unobservable mental processes. They emphasize actions instead of thoughts.

3. Humanistic

Humanistic psychology developed as a reaction to behaviorism. The humanistic approach emphasizes that each individual has great freedom in directing his or her future, a large capacity for personal growth, a considerable amount of inner worth, and enormous potential for self-fulfillment.

4. Cognitive

The cognitive approach examines how we process, store, and use information and how this information influences what we attend to. perceive, learn, remember, believe, and feel.

5. Biological

This approach emphasizes the impact of biology on our behavior. The psychologists in this area are referred to as psychobiologists. Psychobiologists study how the brain, the nervous system, hormones, and genetics influence our behavior. Psychobiologists have found that genetic factors influence a wide range of human behaviors.

6. Sociocultural

Sociocultural is the newest approach to the study of psychology. Sociocultural psychologists study the influence of cultural and ethnic similarities and differences on behavior and social functioning.

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